Empty orchestras

by Anthony Harrison

Three young Korean men sat on the couches in one of the medium-sized rooms of Sing-a-Song Karaoke in Greensboro. It was early in the night. One of them, Kevin Hong, smartly dressed and sitting alone on the left couch, sang a dirge-like Korean pop ballad.

Seung Lee, the potbellied owner of Sing-a-Song, had popped in to check and see how they were doing, chatting with them in Korean. The room was dimly lit except for the flashes of LED lights on the floor and walls.

Hong, Andrew Choi and Jun Choi — no relation — enjoyed their time at Sing-a-Song and for the most part are relative regulars.

Kevin Hong (left) croons a K-pop ballad. Andrew Choi (right) begins cueing up another song and Jun Choi contents himself in simply watching. (Anthony Harrison)

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“I’ve been coming here for six months,” Hong said.

“I used to come twice a month for the past two years,” Andrew Choi said.

“I rarely come here,” Jun Choi said, casually slumped on the second couch.

They all differed in how long they had been in America. Hong was born here; Andrew Choi immigrated here 10 years ago; Jun Choi moved here in 2013.

They are close friends now, but when Hong said his whole Americanized name, Andrew said, “Really? Kevin? I never knew your American name.”

The songs they chose were all ballads, tending towards the dramatic and almost orchestral with their soupy production.

But the boys were all joking and laughing, having a nice night out on the weekend.

They had different reasons for why they liked singing karaoke.

“You can let yourself go, and you get to know each other better,” Andrew said.

“Yeah, it’s fun to come here and get closer with your friends,” Kevin said. “It’s a go-to place for Koreans.”

As for the best part about karaoke itself, Kevin simply stated, “Stress relief.”

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You can find Sing-a-Song Karaoke near Super G Mart on West Market Street, but the exact location isn’t immediately obvious.

Sing-a-Song is tucked away in Suites 2122 and 2123 of FantaCity International Shopping Center, sharing the space with Holy Kingdom of God Tabernacle, Di Maria Bella’s Hair Salon and a few other businesses occupying the mall. A small, yellow sanSONY DSCdwich board pointing to the left at the end of the florescent and vacant hallway serves as the only indicator of the karaoke joint’s location.

A hand-printed sign on a sheet of printer paper hangs on the door: “We open weekend (Fri, Sat, Sun) from 7:00/ If u need reservation, Please call 575-8219,” scrawled in chisel-tip black Sharpie. Next to that, a view into the suite is blocked from the inside by canary-yellow paper pasted on the windows, featuring clip art of guitars, redheaded singers and ’50s-style rock-and-rollers.

On weeknights, the mall stays open, yet it stands empty, desolate and cavernous. Sterile air conditioning hums quietly, and the sound of a few men chatting in Korean, emanating from another hall in the labyrinth, echoes off the eggshell walls and mottled tile.

On weekend nights, the story changes. FantaCity’s parking lot stays full through the night. People flock to sing English-language karaoke at the grill sharing the space with Sing-a-Song and the other businesses. Kids hang out in the lot. It is a rather happening place, for what it is.

But, seemingly no matter what, you can’t hear Sing-a-Song’s microphones coming from the suite at the end of the hall.

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Empty orchestra.

That’s what karaoke technically means.

It’s a portmanteau of two Japanese words. Kara literally means “empty,” but the tag end — oke — comes from okesutora, which means, obviously, “orchestra.”

Despite the Japanese name, karaoke has a storied history in both the east and the west.

The basic concept behind karaoke —the idea of a person singing a beloved song to a backing track nearly identical to the original recording — has actually existed since the beginning of recorded music. One must assume that, before the ages of radio — let alone television — the desire to see and hear full-fledged performances of popular song drove the masses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries mad. Bands assuaged demand by recording instrumental versions of famous hits, and people could sing along at home.

A show started in 1961 called “Sing Along with Mitch,” while relatively short-lived, contributed somewhat to the history and evolution of karaoke. Viewers at home were prompted to sing along with host Mitch Miller and a male chorus as the lyrics appeared subtitled at the bottom of the screen. The British Invasion put the nail in the show’s coffin in 1964; the show’s main viewership was the 40-and-up set, anyway.

Ironically, Britain aired their own version of show, “Singalongamax,” in the 1980s, hosted by comedian Max Bygraves.

By that time, however, the Japanese had perfected karaoke as we know it.

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Kobe-based drummer Daisuke Inoue lays claim to inventing the karaoke machine. His band used to play backup for people — mostly businessmen — wishing to sing hit songs. One of his favorite clients once asked for his band to travel with him to a conference; Inoue could not accompany the man. He gave him a tape of the band playing instead.

Inoue quickly recognized his little idea could be recreationally viable, so he crafted 11 machines — basically an eight-track tape player attached to an amplifier — and began renting the karaoke machines to bars in the Kobe area.

Needless to say, the idea took flight like a rocket shot straight at the sun.

Karaoke is now big business, not just in East Asia — where it constitutes its own booming culture — but across the globe. Geely Automobiles in China fitted their 2003 Beauty Leopard coupe with an in-car karaoke machine as standard equipment. An entire fleet of cabs in London have similar in-car karaoke systems.

The karaoke movement — Daisuke Inoue’s bright little idea — now brings in upwards of $10 billion a year worldwide.

The drummer-turned-businessman was named by Time Asia as one of the most influential Asians of the 20th Century. Also, he was awarded the 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize — a mock award for trivial research and advancement in Nobel-eligible fields— for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.”

To celebrate his 59th birthday in 1999, Inoue sang karaoke for the first time.

You could easily drive right by Quisqueya Restaurant without even thinking about it unless you were looking intently.

It’s a hole in the wall, located at 3008 High Point Road, but when you zoom in even further, if you ever catch the place, you recognize that they advertise karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights from 10 p.m. until last call.

Quisqueya’s walls are painted vibrantly in saffron orange and plum. Red booths line the walls of the Dominican restaurant, and some tables arranged in the middle wait for larger parties. A mirrored column stands in the middle of the room, reflecting the light cast from chintzy brass chandeliers. There’d been a birthday party recently, evidenced by some slowly deflating balloons, one shouting “Happy Birthday” pinned to the ceiling by one of the chandeliers’ bulbs.

Wooden cutout silhouettes of an upright bass and a saxophone hang behind the counter. Circular mirrors stand in for the keys of the saxophone.

Gregorio Ferreras, the owner of the restaurant, rotated from table to table on a recent Friday night. Ferreras is a small but lithe middle-aged man. Bright-eyed, deeply tanned, mustachioed; timid, yet eager to please; always wearing a toothy smile on his face.

After 10 p.m. rolled past, Quisquieya became a completely different venue.

In the hour beforehand, a few groups had filtered in. Some college-aged kids sat at a booth in the front corner, one of them loudly playing along with the up-tempo Caribbean music spouted over the speakers on a mid-sized tom drum. Right before the karaoke started, two families wandered in, ordering food from the buffet and stuck around after finishing their meals.

A little after 10 p.m., the atmosphere of the restaurant shifted dramatically.

Ferreras — the little, soft-spoken man — took possession of a wireless microphone and came alive.

Quisqueya owner Gregorio Ferreras serenades his patrons. (Anthony Harrison)

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Trumpets and guitar punctuated the slow mariachi riff which began the song, “La Primera con Agua,” made famous by Mexican Vincente Fernandez, the apparent “King of Ranchera Music.”

Perhaps none there could have guessed Ferreras would deliver the performance he gave.

Ferreras — always smiling, always asking, “Esta bueno?” to customers — transformed behind the microphone while singing this Latino ballad. He was no longer the restaurant owner; not the former engineer who had moved to North Carolina from the Dominican Republic 10 years ago with his wife and teenage daughters.

No. With a microphone in his hand, Gregorio Ferreras sublimated into a star. Ferreras possessed the voice of some operatic seraphim, delivering the heartfelt lyrics with range, confidence and gravitas seemingly impossible for his slight frame.

Fernandez himself would have been impressed.

He performed it all to a nearly empty restaurant. But he strolled between the tables, courting the guests with gestures, as if the floor of Quisqueya was a stage.

Then again, the restaurant is his stage.

Gracias, señores y señoras,” Ferreras said quietly after the song wrapped up. “Muchas gracias.”

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Seung Lee tended to his business meticulously. The unassuming, middle-aged man dry-mopped the floors of the turquoise common area, or used a Dustbuster and green, padded cloth to clean off the billiards table in the middle of the front room. The refrigerator, holding Sapporo, Heineken, domestic beers, energy drinks and sodas, hummed coolly as the sounds of unintelligible singing, basslines and the tinkling jangle of an actual tambourine bled through the walls of a private room down the hall, deeper in the suite.

Lee emigrated from Seoul, South Korea in 1993. He had previously worked maintenance on buildings in the old country.

His reason for moving to America was simple.

“I just wanted to change my life,” he said, grinning and laughing.

Lee also owns a convenience store, Lee’s Grocery, at 4609 Cherry St. in Winston-Salem.

He decided to expand into Greensboro a few years ago.

“About three years ago, K-pop [Korean pop music] become very famous,” Lee said. “Psy started with the ‘Gangnam Style,’ you know. If I open this business — American people don’t know about this kind of culture — I show American people Asian karaoke and make some money.”

Sing-a-Song’s style of karaoke might have reached American mainstream consciousness via Sofia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

Still, it’s certainly different from the typical bar karaoke many Americans are used to.

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The clientele ranges, but all are intrigued by the novelty of the place.

“Lot of young people come in, sometimes middle-aged, but most people young — teenagers, twenties,” Lee said. “Lot of people — international people — Asian, Latin come here. International people have a lot of good times.”

Lee said people celebrating everything from birthdays and graduations to proms and weddings book the larger rooms.

“This location is good for a karaoke place,” Lee continued. “Super G Mart is an international supermarket, and there are lot of international small businesses here.”

The karaoke cordons itself into six separate rooms — also known as karaoke “boxes” — in two corridors on either side of a common area.

Each room has a distinct theme and color to it. One of the two larger boxes is a muted, avocado shade of green, and a print of Audrey Hepburn hangs near the corner close to the wall holding the television screen which presents the lyrics of the chosen song. Another, one of the two medium rooms, is painted bright orange with some flowery orange wallpaper beside the door.

Patrons cue songs via internet, typically using YouTube and other sites to find the karaoke of their choice and pulling the video up on the TV screen.

Seung figured he could capitalize on differentiating himself from the bar karaoke so ubiquitous in America.

“American karaoke — I went a few times,” Lee said. “It’s mostly open-type. My country, my place — we really don’t want to show off to people.”

Anyely and Wendy Ferreras work along with their father and mother at Quisqueya Restaurant. After their father wowed the restaurant and another patron took a stab at “Otra Vez Sera” by Leonardo Favio, they owned the microphone.

The Ferreras family revels in music, and their karaoke seems like bonding time.

“I love singing,” Anyely said. “I love music, I love singing. I don’t know any songs in English yet, but I’m going to learn.”

The Ferreras daughters wasted little time on the mic. They sang duets on everything from ballads and mariachi waltzes to lively, quick-tempo Afro-Cuban tunes, and they were in it to win it, dancing in sync with each other, clapping and hollering, incorporating the space of the restaurant just like their father did. Wendy even danced with a patron on his way to and from the bathroom.

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“We have a few Americans come in and sing songs in English,” Anyely said. “We just want people to have a good time.”

Wendy Ferreras decided to take a solo performance on one English-language song: the recent reggae hit, “Rude,” by Canadian band Magic!

“My English is not so good-looking, my friends,” Wendy said before the song cued up. “I can talk, but to sing? No. Too fast.”

She performed the song well, but when she got flustered on the words, she invited me to finish the final verse and chorus. Seeing no other choice, I obliged her.

“We love to sing since I was little,” Wendy said afterwards. “My dad play guitar; I play guitar. We do this for fun. We love music. Is not just karaoke.”

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It’s difficult to find international karaoke in the Triad.

The Center for New North Carolinians estimates some 4,000 Korean immigrants live in the Triad area, yet only Sing-a-Song Karaoke and Jacob’s Dream, another karaoke club half a mile down Market Street, appear to exist to meet the demand for a lively facet of their culture. The 2010 Census found Latin Americans account for 14.7 percent and 7.5 percent of Winston-Salem and Greensboro’s populations respectively, but many of the karaoke options for Spanish-speaking immigrants have either shut their doors or ceased hosting karaoke; Bar Latino on Meadowview Road between Randleman Road and South Elm-Eugene Street in Greensboro offers karaoke on Thursday nights.

Some of the difficulty in finding venues for international karaoke out of the American, English-speaking vein may have to do with the turnover of these businesses.

Establishments offering karaoke are also often tucked away in nooks and crannies practically invisible to passersby.

Their web presence is practically nil, as well. Searching on Google remains an option only for larger places like Sing-a-Song.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, not being part of the communities in question can also contribute to ignorance of the karaoke scene. The low profiles many of these places maintain, on top of the aforementioned turnover and publicity issues, makes finding karaoke joints a word-of-mouth proposition — which becomes a barrier in and of itself if you aren’t bilingual.

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On that same Friday night as the Ferreras transformed Quisqueya into their familial nightclub, business at Sing-a-Song Karaoke remained stagnant.

FantaCity’s halls retained their labyrinthine barrenness. The only sound you could hear as you approached Sing-a-Song was the cracking of pool balls.

Tack! Clack

SONY DSCFour young Korean men played pool while Seung smoked Marlboro Lights in the corner, sitting quietly and upright next to the door in front of a print of the Charlotte skyline. Assorted K-pop and rock music burst tinnily from a portable stereo on the end table at the corner of the two-toned turquoise room.

“We have no karaoke customers tonight,” Lee said. “Just pool customers.”

The clacking of the billiard balls struck again, the shk-shk-shk of the players chalking their cue sticks and the whispering roll of the cue ball on felt.

The four pool players come to Sing-a-Song every Friday to play billiards.

Their game seemed peculiar at first — just a bit off.

A man stumbled in and asked, “Do y’all have a bathroom in here?”

Seung laughed. “Bathroom? You got the wroooong place, man.” He pointed the guy down the hall and continued smoking his cigarette and watching the pool game.

It took a moment to realize the men were playing a rather unfamiliar variation.

The billiards table at Sing-a-Song doesn’t have any pockets. It’s simply a felted table with cushions. And only four balls laid on the table — two white, two red.

They played a game called sagu, the Korean word for carom billiards.

Christian Choo, a graphic designer with an office in FantaCity, explained the rules.

One of the white balls maintained importance; it was differentiated from the other by a small, black ring. The marked cue ball established from where the player must shoot. But they played the game based on tricks, as opposed to typical games based on colors or numbers. A point was given when one player hit both red balls without touching the unmarked cue ball; next, a point would be given if the player hit three cushions as well as one of the red balls. If the cue ball hit the other white ball, the player lost a point.

They were playing to 25, but turns were disorganized, seemingly at whim.

The men never sing karaoke at Sing-a-Song. A stocky man with a backwards Yankees cap, not looking up from his shot, said, “Just play pool.”

Cra-TACK! Clack

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